In the hours and days after President Donald J. Trump announced an executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, including those with valid visas and residency permits, numerous stories circulated about soldiers, translators, teachers, scientists, and others who’d performed exceptional service on behalf of the U.S., yet suddenly couldn’t come back home.
One such narrative that gained especially wide circulation, through an Associated Press article published on January 29, was that of Kinan Azmeh, a 40-year-old clarinetist and composer born in Damascus, Syria. In the 16 years since he’d arrived to study with Charles Neidich at the Juilliard School, Azmeh had come to call New York City home. He had earned his doctorate from the City University of New York in 2013, and was granted a green card three years ago because of his “extraordinary abilities” as an artist.
A familiar face among New York performing-arts circles (and a cherished member of the National Sawdust family long before opening night), Azmeh is most widely known for his work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, and was featured prominently in The Music of Strangers, a Silk Road Project documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Thanks to the AP article, he now is among the more visible exiles of President Trump’s directive. We spoke to Azmeh via Skype and FaceTime from Beirut, Lebanon, where he was scheduled to perform the next day.
STEVE SMITH: Where and how did you learn of what had transpired?
KINAN AZMEH: It’s incredible, the contrast of how things went on. I had this… I’d actually describe it as a great show; I played at the new Elbphilharmonie, the new hall they built in Hamburg, and I did a premiere. And then I take a flight the next morning to Beirut, after what was a fabulous concert – you get super excited and everything – and then I landed in Beirut. I get to the hotel, and I read my news feed. I really didn’t know what to do, because you’d hear all these contrasting reports about things. Even now I really don’t know what the situation is. Every person is saying something different, so there’s so much confusion out there. The only way I know what’s going to happen next is when I go to the airport, actually, on Thursday, the morning after my concert here in Beirut. Only then will I know if I actually will be allowed to board the plane. I’m connecting in Rome anyway, but I’ve heard lots of stories from friends of mine who actually were denied boarding a plane if your final destination is the U.S.
You’ve surely heard that acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who declared she would not defend the executive order, was dismissed. The ground seems to change every five minutes.
Exactly, exactly, so I don’t really know what to expect. And I’m not only thinking short-term, if I can come back or not. Which is of course major: Can I go back to my apartment? After 16 years, this is home, too – New York is home as much as Damascus is home right now. But then also I think of the long term, because I’m somebody who travels a lot, in the U.S. but also internationally. For example, I’m recording this album with the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin on February 15… I don’t know now what happens with that. Can I leave the U.S.? Can I come back to the U.S. after that? It seems like the state of confusion is going to last for a long time, so I really don’t know how to react. But again, I put things into perspective. I think of all my friends from Syria – not only friends, but all the Syrians, what they went through in the last five, six years. Even with all of this, I’m able to maneuver. I have my family, and my apartment. There is still a roof over my head.
Where is your family now?
Actually, my family right now is in Beirut…they came to see the concert tomorrow. But they have been in Damascus. So the thing is, again, you put things into perspective, and then you realize, even with this, what’s going on in the world is way bigger. Some people’s lives have been shattered by this. I’m still able to maneuver, somehow… I think. I don’t know. But I still have the capacity to play a concert tomorrow, you know? So that makes me positive. I’m an optimist at heart.
You’ve kept an apartment in Damascus. How long has it been since you’ve been back to Syria?
The last time was in 2012. The last concert I gave in Syria was in April 2011. I bought a little, tiny apartment in Damascus in 2011, in January, about four months before the uprising started, and I was only able to spend one night in that place. And in 2012, that’s when I left and I’ve never been back.
What do you hear from friends and colleagues still there? Or have they scattered to a point where you can’t even contact some of them?
Many of my friends, many from the arts circle, if you like, they’re all over the globe, basically. I have friends in New Zealand, I have friends in Australia, in Mexico, in Brazil, in Europe, everywhere. And of course we keep in touch thanks to modern technology – which is limiting, actually, when you think about Syria, because the electricity is shut for many long hours, and now the water has actually shut, too. But I get myself updated as much as I can from friends back home. And sometimes if they can manage to get to Beirut to come see me, they do.
Beirut is also a home base for you?
My wife is Lebanese; we’re between Paris and New York for a few years now. We’re recently married, anyway, three or four months. I’m based in New York, and my wife and I are actually trying to be in the States more, so my wife also wanted to apply for her artist’s visa to come to the U.S. But now that also is on hold, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to the U.S. But my in-laws are in Beirut, so when I come here I feel very much at home.
Also, every time I used to play in Damascus, I always made it a point to play in Beirut as a natural geographical extension. Really, Beirut, Damascus – they’re not far from each other. Without the borders, an hour-and-a-half drive will get you from one city to the other, maybe two hours. And actually that was inspired by my life in the U.S.: You realize how small this region is after you live in the States for a while. I mean, I find it natural to go from New York to Boston and back in the same day. Beirut always felt close to Damascus, too, so that’s why I have lots of connections also here: friends and family members and fellow artists.
Your situation has gained global attention now because of the Associated Press article that appeared the weekend the ban took effect. What kind of response have you seen since it appeared?
It is quite crazy – I didn’t expect things to go that far. [Laughs] I did this thing with the Associated Press not knowing that it’s a wire, after all… it gets diffused pretty much to everywhere. It’s unbelievable. And then you realize the power of media. I would hope that people focus on the music rather than the tragedies that happened to a musician… I mean, again, it’s not a tragedy; it’s an obstacle that I think we shall [overcome].
What’s really heartwarming is the amount of love I’m getting in my inbox from friends of mine, whether they’re in the U.S., they’re protesting at JFK Airport, or also from around the world – lots of people suggesting, “Do you want to move to this city?” or, “Come have a home in this town.” Everybody’s inviting me to their places, and it’s incredible, really. But I saw the impact, and I hope that if anything it sheds some light on the less fortunate. I’m not detained at an airport, I have a roof over my head, and I’m worrying about a concert tomorrow. And that’s already a privilege.
One thing made clear by The Music of Strangers, the Silk Road documentary in which you were featured last year, is that you spend a fair amount of your time not just playing glamorous concerts in fine halls, but actually going into refugee camps and settlements, interacting directly with the people who now are impacted the most by this new decision.
Right. I’ve been trying to do this for a number of years now, maybe four or five years, within the context of Silk Road but also on my own. I’ve tried to do as many trips as I can to refugee camps in Europe – in Holland, in Germany, or elsewhere – and also in Jordan a few times, and Lebanon. Not only to visit, but also to play; sometimes I bring musical instruments. I’ve also been doing a lot of fund-raising events, fund-raising concerts, to raise both money and awareness to help Syrian refugees, through a number of organizations, many of them based in the U.S. I’m not saying this is all that I do; I keep touring normally as a touring artist. But that has been an important part of what I’m doing.
In your view, what can and should American arts presenters do to raise awareness of and have an impact on this particular situation?
If your question specifically is about arts presenters, let me start by saying about the general public, I always like people to be educated about the topic, and to challenge whatever is considered fact and whatever is considered “alternative fact.” I think that’s at the heart of what everybody should be doing. But that applies to the arts, too – for example, there has been lots of attention on Syrian artists maybe in the last five years, where some of it is just coming from goodwill. I get these incredibly random emails: “We have a festival and we’d like to invite a Syrian artist.” And I say, you know what? This isn’t right. You should invite an artist because he’s an artist and you like what he does. It’s not about the feeling good thing, you know?
Not about tokenism.
Right, right. And again, I would like to think that this also has been a great challenge for Syrian artists – to try to realize that this attention should be a great challenge for them to really develop their tools as artists. It’s a conversation that once I actually had with Yo-Yo, about this and how identities are.
You know, when I started as a young clarinetist, I was “the young clarinetist” in Damascus. And then later on, you know, you start to travel maybe internationally in Lebanon and Jordan, so you become “the Syrian young clarinetist.” And then later on, you’re no longer young, so you become “the Syrian clarinetist.” You start composing, and then you become “the Syrian musician.” And then later on, I think, the natural next step is to become “the musician.” And then, an even higher goal that all of us aim to is when you become human, simply.
In that context, when I think of what musicians do, I would like arts presenters to program them – whether it’s me or somebody else from anywhere in the world – because of the art they do, not because of what they represent. In the meantime, I invite presenters right now, actually, to program really good and decent and honest art coming from the countries that are concerned, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Iran… Mexico, if you want. Real art, and not just artists who want to capitalize on this, because I’m sure people also find opportunities in things like this, whether they’re presenters or the artists themselves, sometimes. Raising awareness is actually done by presenting good art. I think that’s a great way to raise awareness that these countries are not only countries, and these people are not only passport holders. They have a culture, they have a heritage, and they have innovation. And arts presenters’ concern should be that.